A Backpacker’s Guide to Iraqi Kurdistan

Having recently backpacked in northern Iraq in the region known as Iraqi Kurdistan, I felt that a backpacker’s overview was in store. It’s rare for me to give an overview of a country in a single post as I try to be more detailed and individual than that, but here goes. Here is a decent overview of my 10 days in Iraqi Kurdistan, I also wrote an expert guide similar to this about Iraq on Boots’n’All recently and have planned a week long tour to Iraqi Kurdistan on Tripoto.

backpacking in kurdistan iraq

A backpacker’s guide to Iraqi Kurdistan.

What is Iraqi Kurdistan?
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Officially it’s part of Iraq. Officially it’s also part of Kurdistan. Kurdistan is a region which also includes parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey. Neither Kurdistan or Iraqi Kurdistan are officially classed as countries, so you’re backpacking in Iraq here. Iraq flags fly next to Kurdistan flags. But the locals call the region Kurdistan.

At the parliament in Erbil, Kurdistan and Iraq flags fly side by side.

At the parliament in Erbil, Kurdistan and Iraq flags fly side by side.

A Few Reasons Why You Should Visit Iraqi Kurdistan
– Despite what you might have heard on the news, not every part of Iraq is at war or is dangerous. In fact, the northern region, Iraqi Kurdistan is very accessible and safe these days.
– Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Tourist Board try to promote their region as “the other Iraq”, ignoring the “war zone” element completely.
– Iraqi Kurds are some of the most friendly people you’ll ever meet in the world. They are very welcoming and will want to stop by for a chat when they see a backpacker or traveller.
– There are no big brand name restaurants here, it’s very uncommercial so the food is local, fresh, affordable and comes in vast quantities. Food in Duhok.

Our Kurdish Feast in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Our Kurdish Feast in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

– You will rarely meet other travellers, giving you a really authentic insight into what Kurdish life is all about in this region of Iraq.
– You will see for yourself that the media hype over war zones like Iraq always fails to mention that parts of the country are safe, people are friendly and the range of sights to see is impressive.
– You can pick up some really cool Iraqi and Kurdish souvenirs, such as postcards, stamps, coins, banknotes and football scarves, all from the current and previous regimes in the country.

iraqi kurds souvenirs

Some cool souvenirs from Iraqi Kurdistan

A Few Tips when Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan

– When backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan, you must act sensibly at all times and respect the locals.
– Ensure you always have your passport on you – you will be asked for it at every checkpoint and in every hotel. This is just standard procedure and is nothing to worry about.
– Your bags may be checked occasionally as well.

Expect a few checkpoints in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Expect a few checkpoints in Iraqi Kurdistan.

– Eat in local restaurants and markets with the locals – you will find the people very friendly and the food surprisingly good.

duhok kurdistan feast

Our Kurdish feast in Duhok, Kurdistan.

– Try and avoid the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk as they are not considered safe for foreign travellers.
– Explore the Citadel in Erbil – it’s believed to be the longest running continuous settlement on earth.
– Use shared taxis between cities. Safe, reliable and always a set price.
– Always carry your passport and be ready for checkpoints.
– Trust the prices of things. Locals here rarely try to rip you off.
– Try not to refer to the Kurdistan region as Iraq – the Kurds don’t like it and they call it Kurdistan only.
– Be aware that there are also Turks living in this region.
– Avoid Southern Iraq until the political situation changes in the country.

erbil citadel view

The view from Erbil Citadel.

A Backpacker’s Overview of Iraq

OK so Iraq is currently still recognised as a war zone, but it is still completely open to backpackers and independent travellers venturing into the northern part – the Iraqi Kurdistan region. In the Kurdistan part of Iraq you will meet a real mix of Iraqis, Kurds and even Christians in Ainkawa. At the moment, a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is no longer a dangerous, crazy travel idea, but a reality. Most backpackers who do head to Iraqi Kurdistan come away with positive reports about it. Sadly the same cannot currently be said about the southern part of Iraq, which is basically off limits unless you are stationed out there or working there. However the entire country of Iraq is still recognised as a war zone, so this is still important to bear in mind.

war zone iraq

Iraq is still regarded as a war zone.

A Guide to Getting a Tourist Visa for Iraqi Kurdistan

A good number of nationalities can get a visa on arrival, either overland or by air. This visa you get will be an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa and doesn’t allow you to visit the southern part of Iraq, which means the cities of Baghdad, Al Basra or Babylon are off limits. The visa is issued on arrival free of charge to citizens of the UK, the USA, EU countries, Canada, Australia and Japan. A few other nationalities may also be included in this process. A good overview on the visa procedure on arrival is here: getting an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa on Arrival

Visas that cover the whole of Iraq are available too but they take a bit longer and a more stringent process to get them.

iraqi kurdistan

A visa stamp for Iraqi Kurdistan.

How to Get to Iraqi Kurdistan

There are basically two main options for getting into Iraq as an independent traveller:

1. Overland from Turkey. These days, the border from Turkey into the Kurdistan part of Iraq issues visas on arrival to the nationalities mentioned above. The situation can change frequently so it is best to contact the Kurdish Government ahead of your visit just to check.

You can cross into Iraq from Turkey.

You can cross into Iraq from Turkey.

2. Fly into either Erbil or Sulaymaniyeh International Airports. Both the big Iraqi Kurdistan cities Erbil and Sulaymaniyeh have regular international flights that can be booked online through the usual sites like Momondo, Skyscanner etc. It was through Momondo that I found a new flight option from Erbil to Amsterdam – bet you didn’t know you could fly from Iraq to Holland direct?! Erbil is the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan and therefore it also has the biggest airport. There are direct flights every week to cities like Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Doha, Dubai, Adana, Istanbul and Amsterdam, where I flew to.

At Erbil International Airport in Iraq

At Erbil International Airport in Iraq

What to do in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is totally a great place to explore and it has more activities and sightseeing than you could imagine. From Erbil Citadel to the mountain village of Amadiya, the tranquil town of Duhok, the Christian District of Ainkawa and cosmopolitan westernised Sulaymaniyeh, these are the five main places of interest. But there are many others.

amna suraka

At the Amna Suraka Red Security Complex.

Probably the most significant sight however is Iraq’s first museum, the Amna Suraka Red Security Complex in Sulaymaniyeh. This building was used by Saddam Hussein’s Baath party as one of their “houses of horrors” and it provides an honest yet completely shocking account of the damage done to Iraq’s Kurds during the notorious Ba’ath party regime. A visit to Amna Suraka is not for the faint hearted, I hasten to add.

A visit to the Red Security Amna Suraka is not for the faint hearted.

A visit to the Red Security Amna Suraka is not for the faint hearted.

Aside from the sights, a mix of local tea houses and even some international bars give the Kurdish part of Iraq a much more worldly and westernised appeal than you’d expect. Alcohol is served is a lot of places, particularly in Sulaymaniyeh and at decent prices in the main towns and cities all over Iraqi Kurdistan. I wrote a post on my favourite bars in Iraq here.

sport bar sulaymaniyeh

Drinking in the Sport Bar in Sulaymaniyeh.

Obviously Iraq has big tourist potential as it has the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the rumoured location of the Garden of Eden however these are currently off limits for most travellers to Iraq, as they are simply too close to the war zone, I really hope this changes in the near future.

My Top 5 posts on Iraqi Kurdistan:
1. Exploring Amadiya
2. A Visit to Amna Suraka
3. Backpacking in Duhok
4. Backpacking in Erbil
5. Visiting Sulav

Where to Stay in Iraqi Kurdistan

You’ll be spoilt for choice – there are not many backpackers about! Erbil and Sulaymaniyeh have an abundance of hotels, from budget 1* to high end even a 5*, Hotel Internationale. The Parlaman Hotel in Duhok is probably the nearest thing Iraq has to a hostel.

hostel in iraq

The Parlaman Hotel in Duhok: nearest thing to a hostel in Iraq.

Most travellers to Iraqi Kurdistan just turn up and book their accommodation when they arrive, rarely finding a hotel to be full as was the case for us. Booking in advance or online isn’t very common for any part of Iraq, and even the Kurdistan region fails to make it onto the list of many top hostel and hotel booking websites – often it doesn’t even feature on lists.

My guide to backpacking in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

My guide to backpacking in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

That’s my backpacker’s guide to Iraqi Kurdistan – it’s a really cool region to check out and I really encourage more of you to head there and see it. Beats sitting on a beach in the Philippines or partying in Bangkok any day.

Safe travels!

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